Your Favorite Band Probably Plagiarized More Than ‘Blurred Lines’

George Harrison
The 1971 George Harrison hit 'My Sweet Lord' was accused of plagiarizing the 1963 song "She's So Fine." A red rose is placed next to a portrait of Harrison on the gates of the Abbey Road Studios in this November 30, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty Kieran Doherty/Reuters

There are so many good reasons to hate Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s “Blurred Lines,” the 2013 mega-hit that brought squealing soul to the airwaves and soft-core porn to YouTube.

There are the lyrics, which cross over into soundly creepy territory, and the frat-boy catcalls that accentuate refrains like “I know you want it.” There is the video, which finds topless models parading around goats and bicycles in some sort of flesh-filled Robin Thicke wonderland. And there is the infectiousness of it all, which fuels on sheer, relentless repetition.

But despite Tuesday’s jury ruling finding that “Blurred Lines” copied from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” plagiarism is hardly one of them. True, in groove and instrumental qualities, “Blurred Lines” borrows liberally from the Gaye track—but it feels more like a pastiche of '70s soul references in general, and as music theory analyses have shown, the rhythm and vocal melody are astoundingly different. “Blurred Lines” may blur lines between homage and rip-off, but the song’s lack of originality is hardly more egregious than the long and winding history of pop music borrowing.

That’s because plagiarism as it pertains to pop music—especially in an age of sampling and near-limitless digital access—is fuzzier than in the literary or journalistic worlds (though it’s fuzzy there, too!). There are simply fewer notes and chord progressions in the pop vocabulary than there are words in the English language—and pop thrives on some semblance of familiarity. By the “Blurred Lines” standards, your favorite band has probably been guilty of “plagiarism.”

“There’s an old saying in the music industry: ‘Write a hit and you get a writ,’” says Chair of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music Jeff Rabhan, who has dealt with similar allegations as an artist manager for 15 years. “The minute somebody has success, people come out of the woodwork saying, ‘That was my idea, my chord progressions were the same.’ There are literally thousands of songs which follow a very similar formula. You know how many songs have been written over the years that have the chord progression G-D-C?

“The criteria for determining copyright infringement is murky at best,” Rabhan adds. “Does the song sound like Marvin Gaye? Yes. Does it evoke Marvin Gaye? Yes. Is it thievery? I don't know. There are lots of songs that sound like other songs.” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” for example, sounds quite a bit like Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” despite Smith’s insistence that he was unfamiliar with the latter song. (After a settlement, Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne now receive 12.5 percent royalties.)

Ironically, artists hailed for creative, trailblazer qualities (sorry: not Robin Thicke) have been met with plagiarism charges in striking number. Consider Led Zeppelin. The classic rock group’s liberal reliance on old blues standards on its first two records prompted later legal woes, while the power-ballad classic “Stairway to Heaven” has only recently been accused of ripping off Spirit’s instrumental song “Taurus.” Madonna ran into trouble with the 1998 track “Frozen” (source material: a little-known Belgian song called “Ma Vie Fout le camp”), while the art-rock gods of Radiohead were forced to credit The Hollies as co-writers of self-loathing classic “Creep” due to fairly slight chord similarities with 1973 track “The Air That I Breathe.” In a particularly weird case, The Flaming Lips fairly blatantly nicked the vocal melody for 2002’s “Fight Test” from an old Cat Stevens track. Lips leader Wayne Coyne apologized and said that Cat Stevens would receive royalties from the song, though it’s perhaps not the Lips’ most blatant appropriation. An earlier, 1993 track nicks a very distinctive drum intro from Pink Floyd. (Surviving members of Floyd, thankfully, have been more concerned with the issue of royalty payments from free and streaming music sources.)

Nor have the Beatles been immune from such controversies. “All You Need Is Love” ran into trouble after reappropriating music from several Big Band-era standards. A court ruled a decade later that George Harrison had taken elements of “He’s So Fine” (written by Ronnie Mack, recorded by The Chiffons) for his song “My Sweet Lord.” Though the melodic similarities between the two songs are indeed substantial, Judge Richard Owen established an eerie precedent of “subconscious” plagiarism in his conclusion, which is excerpted below:

Did Harrison deliberately use the music of “He's So Fine”? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that “My Sweet Lord” is the very same song as He's So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to “He's So Fine.” This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.

Nearly 40 years later, Clive Davis professor Dan Charnas worries that the law hasn’t kept time with 21st century music production.

“I don’t think our system of copyright law really understands not only electronic music or contemporary postmodern music, [but] I don’t think it much understands American music,” Charnas says. “I think American music is largely based on the blues. Blues is largely based on one chord progression. There’s been an infinite number of songs based on one chord progression.”

Charnas describes “Blurred Lines” as a rather lazy homage to Gaye’s work, “but laziness and willful ignorance shouldn't be illegal.” (By similar standards, Mark Ronson’s inescapable “Uptown Funk” is a shameless tribute to the sonic qualities of classic-era funk, as its name makes clear.) And he worries about the future repercussions of the “Blurred Lines” verdict.

“Judges and juries, they're not musicologists. They only know what they feel,” he said. “I worry that artist will become too obsessed with not copying, or not paying homage. There will be too many impediments to the free flow of creativity.”